The Whiteboard: How will LeBron’s injury change the NBA MVP race?

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

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LeBron James’ severe ankle sprain certainly could have been worse but even a three-to-six-week absence will have ripple effects throughout the league. It could have profound implications for the Western Conference playoff race and even the actual playoffs themselves, depending on how long it takes him to return, how far the Lakers fall in the standings and how long it takes him to regain his rhythm once he’s back on the floor.

Those are the most important questions for the Lakers and their fans but for everyone else, it’s about the outer ripples — how a Lakers’ slide could affect their team and how LeBron’s absence could alter postseason Award races.

This year’s MVP race is among the most wide-open in recent memory and LeBron’s position in that race depended a lot on who you asked. Vegas odds certainly liked his chances but according to Basketball-Reference’s MVP Odds Tracker, LeBron was already well down the list — trailing Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Damian Lillard. However, narrative is often just as important as statistical accomplishments in determining who wins MVP and there are a variety of storylines that could drag down those other candidates. If LeBron is really done for the regular season, that likely rules him out but that doesn’t really make the rest of the race any clearer.

Who is the NBA MVP frontrunner with LeBron James out?

Giannis has won MVP the past two seasons and voters may be hesitant about moving him into a historic group with Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird as the only players to win three consecutive MVPs, especially in a season where Giannis’ team has taken a step back in the standings.

Harden has been sensational for the Brooklyn Nets but how will voters weigh his eight lackluster games in Houston to start the season and the somewhat messy circumstances that brought him from the Rockets to the Nets?

Jokic and Lillard have been unstoppable, individually, but their teams are currently tied for fifth in the Western Conference. Over the past two decades, only two players have won MVP playing for a team that did not finish with one of the top two seeds in their conference. The first was Russell Westbrook in 2016-17 who became just the second player in NBA history to average a triple-double for a full season, overcoming the fact that the Thunder finished sixth in the West with a .573 win percentage. The other was Steve Nash in 2005-06 who led the Phoenix Suns to the No. 3 seed in the West and a .659 win percentage, while leading the league in assists and averaging 18.8 points per game during a 50/40/90 season.

In terms of win percentage, the Nuggets and Blazers have been about as good as Westbrook’s Thunder team and while both Jokic and Lillard have been incredible, neither is hitting the kind of historic, easily identifiable, round-number benchmark that Westbrook hit in 2016-17.

And then there is Joel Embiid. He passed LeBron as the Vegas MVP frontrunner in early March, but he’s still out with a serious bone bruise in his knee and even if he returns at the earliest end of his timetable and stays healthy through the rest of the season, he will have missed nearly a third of his team’s games this season. Adjusting for pandemic- and lockout-shortened seasons over the past two decades, the lowest percentage of a team’s games played by an MVP was 87 percent — Allen Iverson who played 71 of his team’s 82 games in 2000-01. Even if Embiid returned today and played every remaining regular-season game for the 76ers, he’d have played in just 83 percent this year.

There are other potential candidates like Luka Doncic, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, but they all suffer from the same issues as other players with arguably more impressive resumes. It’s possible that LeBron’s injury pushes the Lakers down in the standings, allowing the Nuggets or Blazers to surge into a top-three seed and helping the case for Jokic or Lillard. Or maybe the Bucks continue their hot streak and Giannis’ statistical accomplishments can overcome the optics of him cementing history as his team gets worse.

But the most likely outcome is that the lack of an obvious frontrunner creates a split vote where someone in this group wins an MVP under norm-busting circumstances that just wouldn’t happen in any other season. So if you love longshots, this is definitely your year.

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